When the dust had finally settled on this 48-game sprint of an NHL regular season, can anyone really say they are surprised that the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will be meeting in the playoffs—again?
For the fourth time in the past six years, the Caps and Rangers will square off in the playoffs. If history has taught us anything the past few years, it is to expect the unexpected when these two teams meet. Seedings mean nothing. Predictability? Forget about it.
Two of the previous three series have gone the full seven games. In 2009, the Caps came in as the No. 2 seed, but fell behind the No. 7-seeded Rangers, 3-1. Two dominating performances by the Caps later and the two teams met in a tight and tense Game 7. The Caps would win that game, 2-1, on a late goal by Sergei Fedorov.
In 2011, one year after the Caps' shocking loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the teams would meet in the playoffs once again. This time out, the Caps would prevail in five games, although the series could have just as easily gone the other way had the Rangers caught a few more breaks.
In 2012, the teams would meet again, but this time, a berth to the Eastern Conference Finals was on the line. For the first time, the Rangers had home-ice advantage, and, in the end, the Rangers won Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, 2-1, to eliminate the Caps.
So, for the third year in a row, here we go again. The higher-seeded team has won the past two series so that bodes well for the Caps' chances. Nevertheless, when these two teams meet in the playoffs, having any sort of expectations can be a real waste of time, investment and effort.
Both teams are quite different from a year ago, and yet, they are very much the same. Both teams ended the season peaking at the right time. The Caps went 15-2-2 in their final 19 games; the Rangers went 10-3-1 in April to capture the No. 6 seed.
Both teams obviously know each other very well, and it will be very difficult for one team to truly surprise the other.
So how do I see this playing out? I think we are in store for an unreal battle between two teams that know exactly how to attack the other's weaknesses. I have a feeling this one is going to go to a Game 7 as well, and I anticipate a tough, mostly defensive series where the slightest mistakes are magnified considerably.
Who will win? How will each game go down? How close will my predictions be to reality? Am I completely crazy?
For that, you will have to read on.
Game 1 should be a rather defensive affair. It will have a slower and more deliberate pace to it as both coaches will be probing to see what areas can be exploited most easily. They will both not find much in the way of answers or open ice with which to work.
Game 1 might not be an "instant classic," but it will have enough going for it to get the series off on the right foot.
I fully expect both teams to come out cautious and not wanting to make that first crucial error. The Washington Capitals will come out with a lot of emotion and will try and feed off of a rabid crowd hungry to avenge last year's playoff defeat. Henrik Lundqvist will have to be sharp early on, and I think he will be to keep the New York Rangers in the game.
Somewhere in the second period, Martin Erat will score to show exactly why the Caps traded for him at the trade deadline. Dan Girardi will draw the Rangers even later in the period, and the two teams will go to the third period deadlocked at 1-1—surprising pretty much no one in the process.
One of the biggest keys to this series will be special teams, and, in particular, how the Rangers penalty kill holds up against the Caps and the best power-play unit in the NHL. The Caps power play finished No. 1 in the NHL, operating at a 26.8 percent efficiency rate.
The Rangers PK, which ranked fifth in the league last year, fell to 15th in the NHL this season, killing off penalties 81.1 percent of the team. The entire series could hinge on this: Can the Rangers contain the Caps power play? If they can, New York has a great chance to win. If they can't, this series could be over quickly.
In Game 1, this disparity will catch the Blueshirts. The Caps will get the third-period power play they desperately need, and Mike Green will continue his torrid resurgence by blasting home the game-winning, power-play goal.
The Caps take a 1-0 series lead with a tough 2-1 win at Verizon Center.
Game 2 of this series will play out much differently than Game 1. The New York Rangers, realizing that they will simply have to score more goals to be able to prevail, will open things up quite a bit more.
Unfortunately for New York, the 2013 version of the Rangers will not play that style of hockey as effectively as the 2012 version did, and the Washington Capitals will make them pay.
Unlike Game 1 though, it will be the Rangers taking the play to the Caps early on, and they will pretty much dominate the first half of the first period. The Rangers will discover, however, that Braden Holtby is no slouch in goal this year, and he will be just as big a thorn in their side as he was last year.
Look for Holtby to make some outstanding saves. I also expect the Caps to draw a couple penalties early on, as the Rangers will really press things quite a bit.
This is another interesting area where the series could tilt: Can the Rangers power play do enough against a suspect Caps penalty-killing unit?
The Rangers power play was not awe-inspiring this season, ranking 23rd in the NHL at 16.7 percent.
The Caps PK was even less impressive as they ranked a woeful 27th in the NHL, killing off penalties only 77.9 percent of the time.
In Game 2, though, the Caps PK will continue its late-season improvement, will stymie the Rangers and this will change the complexion of Game 2.
With Holtby playing well and with the PK doing its job, Alexander Ovechkin will take over. The newly crowned and three-time winner of the Rocket Richard trophy will score a goal near the end of the first period. John Carlson will add another in the second period, and Troy Brouwer will net a power-play goal as well.
Leading 3-0 going into the third period, Rick Nash will get the Rangers on the board. But Ovi will score an empty-net goal to salt away a 4-1 win for the Caps and a 2-0 series lead as the series shifts to the Big Apple.
With the series shifting to New York, and with the Washington Capitals having all the momentum in the world, they will go into Game 3 with a very patient approach.
The New York Rangers, on the other hand, will come into Game 3 a bit confused as to what to do, having lost a tight defensive game and then having been beaten at a more up-tempo affair.
Feeling more comfortable as a counterpunching team, the Blueshirts will take a patient approach in Game 3. But something unexpected will happen early on in Game 3 that will produce a game for the ages and a true anomaly as far as playoff games go between these two clubs.
An offensive outburst is what we will see in Game 3, and it is a game that will change the series.
The event that will change the series around will be something very unexpected—a short-handed goal. It was not just any short-handed goal. It was a goal by Darrell Powe. Powe has not scored a goal this season, has no assists and averages about 13 shifts per game.
Naturally, he is a perfect candidate to do something special.
Powe has played in 42 games and has been a key part of the New York Rangers PK. The Washington Capitals will try and build off their power-play success the first two games and will get a little careless. Powe will get the short-handed goal, and this will rattle Braden Holtby in a way we did not really see a year ago.
Goals by Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin will follow, and the Rangers will have a 3-0 lead after the first period before a boisterous crowd at Madison Square Garden. Holtby, clearly off his game, will get pulled by Adam Oates. The goalie change will grab the Caps' attention, and what ensues will make for one of the best playoff games ever between these two teams.
Goals by Mike Ribeiro and Joel Ward within the first 10 minutes of the second period will quiet the crowd. Derick Brassard, who has been such a huge lift for the Rangers since he came over from the Columbus Blue Jackets, will stem the momentum shift, but Nicklas Backstrom will get that one goal back, and the teams will head to the third period with the Rangers up 4-3.
Early in the third period, the Caps' third line will make their presence felt when Jason Chimera, who has had an off-year, scores to complete the comeback.
Things will remain tight for a while with both Michal Neuvirth and Henrik Lundqvist making some key saves. Ryan McDonagh will give the Rangers the lead with just a few minutes left but Eric Fehr, who has scored some true clutch goals this season, nets another one with the goalie pulled.
Overtime will be a very tense time for the Rangers and their fans. In the end, though, Brassard will come through with the game-winning goal. It will be a sickeningly low moment for the Caps who showed such heart and guts battling back repeatedly.
But Brassard's second goal of the game will win Game 3 for the Rangers and trim the Caps' lead in the series to 2-1.
Yes, a game like this seems very unlikely based on the history of these two teams. In their playoff history since 2009, the most goals the Rangers have scored in a playoff game against the Caps has been four; the most the Caps have scored against the Rangers has been five. Last season, neither team scored more than three goals in any game.
In reality, a game like this between these two teams might actually be way overdue. If it comes to pass like this, it will be one of those "I was there" moments for anyone at MSG that night.
After the insanity of Game 3, Game 4 will be a return to normalcy for this series.
Of course, that means another tight, tough and tense battle between the two rivals. For those who remember the triple overtime classic in Game 3 last season, then this season's Game 4 will feel very familiar.
Whatever was wrong with Braden Holtby in Game 3, it will be nothing but a distant memory in Game 4. Holtby will play tremendously and will keep the New York Rangers at bay. Unfortunately for the Caps, Henrik Lundqvist will remind everyone why he is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and he will match Holtby save for save.
A second-period goal by Marcus Johansson will have the Washington Capitals feeling good, and that lead will hold up until midway through the third period. It will be at that point that Derek Stepan will score the game-tying goal, and the two teams will head to overtime for the second consecutive game in New York.
In the first overtime, Alexander Ovechkin will have a golden opportunity to score, just as he did in Game 3 a year ago. The opportunity will again slip away. The same thing will happen to Ryan Callahan, and he too will miss the mark.
With both captains having the series on their respective sticks, but failing to come through, the teams will tighten everything down defensively and get ready for the hockey equivalent of trench warfare.
Five minutes into the second overtime, though, Callahan will redeem himself, capitalizing on a bad decision by Steve Oleksy to jump into the offensive zone in an attempt to end the game.
Oleksy has been such a pleasant surprise this season, and he will make a bad judgment decision at the wrong time. Callahan will, once again, rescue the Blueshirts, and the Rangers will continue to frustrate the Caps in overtime games.
With the 2-1 win, the Rangers send the series back to D.C. tied at two games a piece, and it is back to square one for both teams as a new best-of-three series emerged.
Game 5 will represent a true low-water mark for the Washington Capitals. After losing two overtime games in a row in New York, the Caps will come home to Verizon Center searching for answers and trying to recapture momentum.
They will find neither, as Henrik Lundqvist will stop 35 shots and shut out the Caps 3-0 to give the New York Rangers a 3-2 series lead.
Lundqvist will have to be sharp early on. The Caps will come out with guns blazing in a desperate attempt to re-establish themselves as the alpha dogs of the series. This will be especially true for the Caps' top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Lundqvist will get hammered by that trio, but he will not yield.
I also expect to see the Caps' fourth line of Jay Beagle, Aaron Volpatti and Matt Hendricks begin to really try and wear the Rangers down physically. It will be moderately successful—but not successful enough.
Ryan Callahan will pick up where he left off and get a goal midway through the second period to put the Rangers up, 1-0. Taylor Pyatt will add a second goal early in the third period. The Rangers will have to kill off a couple of penalties as the third period moves along, but they will rise to the challenge.
The Caps will get more desperate to make something happen, but Lundqvist will be too good. To his credit, with the Caps abandoning any sort of defensive game plan in an attempt to score, Braden Holtby will play really well down the stretch, and he will get hung out to dry on more than one occasion by his teammates.
In the end, an empty-net goal by Michael Del Zotto will put the finishing touches on a 3-0 win for the Rangers that will put New York ahead in the series 3-2.
As the teams make the short trek back up I-95, the Rangers seemed to have firmly seized control of the series.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Game 6 of the 2013 playoff series between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers is going to be very, very similar to Game 6 between the two teams a season ago.
The key differences will be that the Caps will even the series on the road this time out, and Braden Holtby will actually go the distance and nab his first career playoff shutout.
It will come as no surprise that the Rangers will go for the knockout early on. They will throw everything they can at Holtby. Holtby, however, will take a page from the book of Henrik Lundqvist and turn aside everything the Rangers can throw at him.
In a series full of twists, turns and momentum shifts, Holtby's performance through the first 20 minutes of Game 6 will be critical.
Having survived the Rangers' initial push to end things early, Game 6 will then start to look a lot like most of the other games in the series.
Midway through the second period, Alexander Ovechkin will finally rediscover his scoring touch. His first goal since Game 2 will snap a seven-period scoreless drought for the Caps and will put the Caps in position to even the series.
Finally having broken through against Lundqvist, the Caps will really start to press their advantage. Aaron Volpatti will stun the MSG faithful with a huge goal just five minutes after Ovi's, and the Caps will hold a 2-0 lead going into the third period.
The Rangers, not wanting to go back to Washington for a Game 7, will try and do everything they can to break Holtby's will. Holtby, however, will have other ideas. In Game 6, with the season on the line, on the road, Holtby will turn in his best performance, stopping all 32 shots he will face and sending the series back to D.C. for a decisive Game 7.
It did not seem possible that the Caps and Rangers could put on a better series than they did a year earlier. But after six games of non-stop action and drama, the two rivals would head to a decisive Game 7 for the third time in the past five years.
Is it really so hard to believe?
If the series does not go the full seven games...now that might be hard to believe.
Game 7 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series won't be a classic. Instead, it will be the moment when Alexander Ovechkin announces to the world that, yes, he does in fact know how to lead a team to a playoff victory.
After placing the Washington Capitals on his shoulders to get them to the playoffs, Ovi will again shoulder the load and lead the Caps back to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Both teams will come out aggressively. John Tortorella is no dummy. He will know that if the Rangers lie back and let the Caps dictate the pace of the game—especially with the Caps having home-ice advantage for Game 7 this season—that things could get out of hand quickly. So, Tortorella will take the leash off his hounds and let them play at the Caps pace.
Early on, the gamble will help keep the New York Rangers in the game. Mike Green will put the Caps up, 1-0, but the Rangers will respond with a goal from Ryan Clowe. After the first period, it will certainly look like a typical Caps vs. Rangers playoff game and one that could very easily resemble Game 7 from 2009, won by the Caps on a late goal by Sergei Fedorov.
Instead, the Rangers will run into some penalty issues, and this will cause their undoing. After being able to keep the Caps power play at bay, at least somewhat, for most of the series, the Rangers will make too many errors that will cost them.
Power-play goals from Mike Ribeiro and Alexander Ovechkin will give the Caps a 3-1 lead at the end of the second period. With time running out, and with Braden Holtby playing very well again, the Rangers will have to open things up even further, take a few more chances and try and generate some offense.
The Caps defense will be ready, though, and they will play a transition game that the Rangers will be unable to deal with. Ovi will spring free on a breakaway, and, unlike in Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, Ovi will come through this time. His second goal of the game early in the third period will give the Caps a 4-1 lead.
From there, the only drama will be whether Ovi can get his second career playoff hat trick. Ovechkin will do exactly that and his third goal of the game will put an exclamation mark on the Caps' 5-1 series-clinching victory.
The Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will wage one heck of a battle over the next couple of weeks.
Things may not go exactly as I have predicted here. If half of this actually happens, then AED devices should be mandatory equipment while watching the series.. And, sure, some of this was done with a flair for the dramatic and because it sure sounds entertaining.
The reality, though, is that this series will quite possibly go the full seven games, and, if it does, I would be surprised if several of these moments do not actually come to pass.
In the end, though, I expect the Caps to be just a bit better than the Rangers this year and they will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, yet again, in a hard-fought seven-game series.